In a recent review of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, I learn that in a creation myth of the Yanomami people, the original world – the world that was here before – was “crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed ‘back’ of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged.” A new sky was set up and “held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.”
The fragility of the known world is a theme that emerges also in Juan José Saer’s book The Witness (see post from 30 November). The nameless cabin boy who is adopted by a tribe living on the banks of a South American river is returned to the invading Spaniards ten years after his capture. Eschewing public attention, he holes up in a Spanish monastery for several years, under the tutelage of a sagacious monk, who teaches him Latin, Greek and Hebrew. On his protector’s death, he leaves the monastery and lives as a vagrant, before eventually he joins up with a group of actors, and – to great public acclaim – tours the cities of Europe, performing a drama of his ‘life among the savages’, in which he acts himself. It is only in his old age that he settles down to write his account of those years.
And here he returns to the theme of the precariousness of the world, and all that is in it. The Indians among whom he lived all those years ago considered themselves and the world they inhabited to be coterminous. Outside they do not feel on safe ground.
“Even though they [the Indians] took for granted the non-existence of others, their own existence was in no way irrefutable . . . For them the main attribute of all things was precariousness.” This belief has a linguistic base: there is no equivalent word in their language for ‘to be’. The closest equivalent they have means ‘to seem’. “But ‘seems’ has more of a feeling of untrustworthiness than sameness. It is more a negative than a positive. It implies an objection rather than a comparison. It does not refer to a known image but rather tends to erode perception and diminish its force. The word used to designate appearance also means exteriority, a lie, an eclipse, enemy. Everything that presented itself clearly to the sense was for them formless and had a vague and sticky underside against which the darkness beat.” The people among whom our narrator lives, nevertheless, regard themselves as the custodians of this fragile and terrifyingly insubstantial world. “In their hands lay the precarious fate of all perishable life. It would take only a moment’s inattention for it all to collapse, taking them with it.”
I do not regard this attitude towards the imminent collapse of all reality to be that unreasonable. After all, those of us who grew up in the sixties came to consciousness under a not entirely dissimilar mythology of imminent extinction: in our case it was thermonuclear war. Now it is the destruction of the ozone layer and climate change. It is no surprise that environmentalists have adopted the Shaman Davi Kopenawa, co-author of The Falling Sky, as a spokesperson for those many peoples whose habitat is under constant environmental threat from loggers and miners, or from the effects of climate change. Davi Kopenawa has taken on this mantle, appearing at events worldwide on behalf of his people, and others like them. According to the New York Review article, “he finds echoes of Yanomami notions in Western environmental thought, but with an important caveat: “Since the beginning of time, Omama has been the center of what the white people call ecology…. In the forest, we human beings are the ‘ecology.’”